If You Build It, They Will Come--Won't They?
"If you build it, they will come" was first whispered to actor Kevin Costner by the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson in a 1989 movie set in a cornfield in east-central Iowa called "Field of Dreams." That phrase has since been adopted by many proponents of quail habitat management, because we have seen first-hand the power of habitat and the explosion of quail that can come with it.
I am one of those landowners who has seen the return of quail. They really will come, if you provide the necessary habitat ingredients. But, I typically do not see or hear quail on my Osage County farm until rifle deer season each year. And this year was no different. We confirmed at least two coveys calling on our mostly forested 47 acres calling one very still November morning. It is rare to hear quail calling on this farm whether spring or fall. A number of us at the Department have surmised that the birds do not call very much in situations where small, open fields are surrounded by large blocks of timber. The sound does not carry well beyond the field due to the timber and probably attracts predators more so than other quail! Each spring I hear quail calling on a big legume hayfield south of my farm, but they rarely call here in my smaller fields.
Even in wet, soggy northern Missouri we have landowners who actively manage their land for quail tell us they have birds. Some claim record numbers of birds, while others agree that they still have birds hanging on in spite of record rainfall and snowfall events in the last year.
In the last 20 years since "Field of Dreams" was filmed, that Iowa cornfield, like much of the Midwest, has been experiencing a number of weather extremes in rapid succession. And while this has been happening, the overall quail and pheasant populations of the Midwest, seem to have joined the ghost of Shoeless Joe. The increase in weather extremes and the decline of our gamebirds is not coincidence.
Above-average snowfall and above-average spring rainfall reduces quail and pheasant populations. We have the weather and quail population data for nearly 30 years to back up this claim. In wet springs the surviving birds continue to attempt to pull off a successful nest. A cooperator hunting near Chillicothe reports harvesting a quail that, according to the feathers on its wings, is estimated to have hatched around Sept. 25! We do have other documentation of late-hatched birds following a very wet spring. I found birds which had hatched around Sept. 13 in 2008, another record wet spring in this area. In 1993, another record wet year, I watched a nest hatch out on Sept. 26.
One of the bright spots in quail populations continues to be Southeast Missouri, where USDA conservation programs and partners have helped landowners install thousands of acres of native grass buffers. Again, we see where habitat, coupled with milder weather than we are seeing in northern Missouri, has produced bird numbers that rival the 1980s.
I have a friend in Gasconade County who thinks after hearing the covey calls during deer season that he has at least eight coveys, similar to some of the best years he has seen. He has done a lot of fescue eradication and woodland management. On the other hand, I have a neighbor who reported that for the first time after five years of habitat management that he has seen his first covey on his Osage County farm. Unfortunately, in our part of the world we are creating an oasis for quail in a sea of inhospitable terrain dominated by fescue pasture and dense woodlands. In these situations, it may just take a lot longer for the birds to find you and your habitat efforts. They are still hanging on in this area, but are few and far between.
If you build it they WILL come, but it might take a while depending on what surrounds your property!